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March 14, 1794: Eli Whitney Patents Cotton Gin
On this day in 1794 Eli Whitney is granted a patent for the cotton gin. It used a combination of a wire screen and small wire hooks to pull the cotton through, while brushes continuously removed the loose cotton lint to prevent jams.
Whitney’s gin revolutionized the cotton industry in the United States, but also led to the growth of slavery in the American South as the demand for cotton workers rapidly increased. The cotton gin has consequently been identified as an inadvertent contributing factor to the growth of slavery and the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Whitney applied for a patent on October 28, 1793 and the patent was granted on March 14, 1794, but not validated until 1807. Whitney’s cotton gin was capable of cleaning 50 pounds of lint per day. The model consisted of a wooden cylinder surrounded by rows of slender spikes, which pulled the lint through the bars of a comb-like grid. The grids were closely spaced, preventing the seeds from passing through. Loose cotton was brushed off, preventing the mechanism from jamming.
The invention of the cotton gin caused massive growth in the production of cotton concentrated mostly in the South. Cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850. As a result, the South became even more dependent on plantations and slavery, with plantation agriculture becoming the largest sector of the Southern economy.
1 Pound or 50 Pounds Per
While it took a single slave about ten hours to separate a single pound of fiber from the seeds, a team of two or three slaves using a cotton gin could produce around fifty pounds of cotton in just one day. The number of slaves rose in concert with the increase in cotton production, increasing from around 700,000 in 1790 to around 3.2 million in 1850.
By 1860, the Southern states were providing two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton, and up to 80% of the crucial British market. The cotton gin “transformed cotton as a crop and the American South into the globe’s first agricultural powerhouse. According to many historians, this was the start of the Industrial Revolution”.
Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. Before the invention of the cotton gin, slavery had been on the decline; many slaveholders had even given away their slaves. After Whitney’s invention, the plantation slavery industry was rejuvenated.
While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.